What’s next for closed school buildings?

By Ainslie Pierrynowski (AIMS on Campus Student Fellow) 

Faced with declining enrollment and a shrinking tax base, school closures and consolidation have become commonplace in many jurisdictions across Atlantic Canada. While previous research from AIMS has delved into how future school closures might be averted through alternative cost-saving measures, this piece will focus on communities whose schools have already closed. After all, school closures are not merely a symptom of the region’s economic downturn. In fact, school closures may entail unintended, adverse economic consequences for the surrounding community. One such consequence involves what is left behind once schools close: unused buildings.

After a school closure, school boards, municipalities, and provincial governments find themselves left with a large asset that may prove difficult to sell—especially if local economic stagnation and a decreasing population contributed to a school closing in the first place. As a result, school boards and governments may be forced to spend money to maintain these unoccupied buildings or to have the buildings torn down. Alternatively, buildings that fail to attract buyers might simply be abandoned and left to become blights on the local landscape. Decayed, unused school buildings and vacant lots can further deter investment and may pose health and safety hazards. Indeed, the longer one wait to sell a school building, it appears, the more costly the unoccupied building becomes.

Nonetheless, what seems destined to become a blight on Atlantic Canada’s landscape can be transformed into an economic asset. Communities across Canada and abroad have seen their former school buildings become the sites of new opportunities through adaptive reuse, which refers to the process of retrofitting an old structure for a new purpose. An old church could become a community centre, or an office building in disrepair could become an apartment complex, for example. Admittedly, the fact that schools were built for a specialized purpose can make school buildings more difficult to retrofit for new uses than, say, the blank canvas offered by the wide open spaces of a warehouse. Yet, a number of successful projects could serve as models for the adaptive reuse of school buildings in Atlantic Canada.

For instance, two former elementary schools in Michigan became home to business incubators. As I wrote in a previous AIMS On Campus op-ed, business incubators have a growing presence in Atlantic Canada and could play key roles in assisting prospective entrepreneurs. Moreover, former school buildings could be repurposed to bolster Atlantic Canada’s heritage tourism industry and support historical research efforts, as with a closed Chicago school that became an Irish-American heritage centre. Further inspiration can be found in Tennessee’s North Oakwood Elementary, which became a senior living facility. This model is especially relevant to developers in Atlantic Canada, given the region’s ageing population. Meanwhile, in Toronto, a decommissioned school became Artscape Youngplace, a cultural hub which leases space to local businesses and community organizations. The site is home to a coffee shop, a childcare centre, and galleries, studios, and shops owned by artists. The success of a similar project in Sydney, Nova Scotia hints at the potential for repurposed, multiuse spaces in Atlantic Canada.

While the success of these initiatives shows that old school buildings can offer new opportunities for Atlantic Canada, there are a few important concerns to bear in mind. As this article on the repurposing of former school buildings points out, school boards who decide to sell old buildings must be keyed into the local real estate market, in order to “get the most of their assets.” Fortunately, school boards do not have to play the role of real estate agent unaided. Drawing on a number of existing programs, students at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a framework for selling and repurposing old school buildings in a profitable and financially sustainable manner. Further, some real estate companies offer specialized services to those preparing to buy or sell former school buildings.

Community buy-in is also an important consideration. In some communities, especially small or rural ones, schools double as sport and recreation centres, performing arts venues, sites for skills training and job searching, or the site of community organizations. Thus, the loss of a school may represent a new void in a community’s economic and cultural landscape. Further, given the possibility of an unused building becoming an eyesore that drives down property values, residents have an added stake in determining what becomes of an unoccupied school building. A number of successful adaptive reuse projects speak to the significance of community support. In Missouri, the Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) Repurposing Initiative sought out local residents’ proposals regarding the recently closed Longan Elementary School and then put the school building on the market. In 2012, the building sold for $1 million US, $250 000 of which will cover the leftover bonds on the property and $750 000 of will go to the local school district. A similar initiative in Tulsa, Oklahoma called the Schoolhouse Project likewise sought out community support for the sale and reuse of former school buildings; as of 2012, the project managed to save $2.7 million US by selling old school buildings. Reusing old school buildings as sites for community-owned cooperatives—which I discussed in this op-ed—provide another way for residents to take a decision-making role in the adaptive reuse efforts.

Overall, adaptive reuse has proven to be a beneficial and profitable way to transform unoccupied school buildings from eyesores into opportunities. As our school systems and our local landscapes continue to change, we too must change the way that we look at former school buildings.

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